Sound of My Voice
Director : Zal Batmanglij
Screenplay : Zal Batmanglij & Brit Marling
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : Christopher Denham (Peter Aitken), Nicole Vicius (Lorna Michaelson), Brit Marling (Maggie), Davenia McFadden (Carol Briggs), Kandice Stroh (Joanne), Richard Wharton (Klaus), Christy Meyers (Mel), Alvin Lam (Lam), Constance Wu (Christine), Matthew Carey (Lyle), Jacob Price (PJ), David Haley (O’Shea), Avery Pohl (Abigail Pritchett), James Urbaniak (Mr. Pritchett), Annie O’Donnell (Mrs. Dewitt), Laura Leyva (Principal Garner)
Like Another Earth, last year’s funereal mash-up of guilt-ridden psychodrama and science fiction that was also co-written by and starred Brit Marling, Sound of My Voice is an intriguing, intense, low-budget effort that takes a familiar genre—in this case, mystery—and sets it within a sci-fi framework. The two main characters are Peter Aitken (Christopher Denham) and Lorna Michaelson (Nicole Vicius), who have taken it upon themselves to investigate and debunk a super-secretive Southern California cult whose denizens gather in the basement of a suburban home and listen to the teachings of Maggie (Brit Marling), a 24-year-old woman who claims to be from the year 2054.
Is Maggie a true time traveler who knows of an impending civil war or a slick con artist preying on the naïve and impressionable? Peter, who works as a substitute teacher during the day and imagines himself to be an intrepid investigative journalist by night, is sure that she is the latter, and he views his and Lorna’s infiltration of the group and attempts to record their activities to be its own kind of holy mission, a necessary risk required to expose a charlatan. Lorna, who has recently left a life of Hollywood drugs and debauchery, tags along more out of dedication to her boyfriend than any fervid desire to get the bottom of things, although it is ultimately she who becomes the voice of reason as Peter becomes more and more determined to see his mission through, even if it involves blurring the lines between pretending to be part of the cult and truly progressing what may be its deeply dangerous agenda.
First-time director Zal Batmanglij, who co-wrote the script with Marling, and cinematographer Rachel Morrison, a veteran of documentaries and television work, make the most of their meager budget and limited locations, turning ordinary spaces like kitchens and basements and garages into almost otherworldly portals via lighting and framing. Each time Peter, Lorna, and the other cult members descend into Maggie’s lair, which she cannot leave due to her frail body being unaccustomed to the world of 2010, they must go through a lengthy ritual in which they scrub their bodies, dress in all white, and execute a complex secret handshake with Maggie’s righthand man, Klaus (Richard Wharton), who originally found her wandering the streets of L.A. after she inexplicably woke up 44 years in the past.
Maggie herself is a spectral presence, and Brit Marling is utterly convincing as a young woman who could be a savior or just another swindler. She speaks in hushed tones and looks upon her small group of followers with a beatific smile that is at times entrancing and deeply creepy. She is not above challenging them, though, and at one point she goes to town on Peter, who refuses to follow her instructions to vomit up an apple he just ate (one of her numerous symbolic tests of loyalty) because he has also swallowed a radio transmitter that allows him to record what he sees through a tiny camera in his eyeglasses. Whether or not she actually draws out of him repressed emotions about childhood sexual abuse remain tantalizingly unclear.
Yet, despite powerful moments that have us twisted in knots of both suspense and wonderment, waiting with baited breath to see if Peter will be exposed before he can expose Maggie, the film as a whole ultimately feels like it lacks full unity and purpose. Like Another Earth, Sound of My Voice is purposefully cryptic and ambiguous, as if those are the special effects it has in lieu of the expensive CGI that has (unfortunately) come to dominate the popular conception of what sci-fi is. Marling is clearly trying to bring sci-fi back to the realm of ideas rather than spectacle, and for that she and the filmmakers with whom she works should be commended. Yet, the ultimately unresolved nature of virtually everything in the film feels like a bit of a cheat, even if it the ambiguity is achieved with frequently clever means (at one point, a Justice Department agent tells Lorna that she knows exactly what the cult is up to, and then never answers the question, although her dialogue sets up one potential interpretation of the film’s final moments). In some ways, Sound of My Voice is a tease, although it teases us with such skill and efficient use of its minimal resources that we can’t help but get caught up in the moment and may even find it difficult to forget.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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